No right or wrong answer when deciding to tan


Blake Lanser/Iowa State Daily

With winter coming to a close and spring break around the corner, students take to tanning beds to reach the level of bronze that’s deemed beach ready.

Eric Wirth

With the cold winter months offering no respite from negative degree wind chills and harsh weather, students have been bundling up and the sight of bronzed skin may have faded from their memories.

With spring break around the corner, some students are yearning for that mocha-skinned look and have turned to tanning salons in order to get it in lieu of winter weather. 

“[I go] a couple times a week,” said Haley Clifton, sophomore in kinesiology and health.

Clifton, who has tanned since she was 14, has patronized both the Sizzlin’ Cabana tanning salon and Sun Tan City in Ames because she says it makes her look and feel better.

While chestnut brown skin brings to mind days on the beach, laughing with friends and nights that can never be forgotten, for some, it calls forth a much more sinister thought.

“Tanning dramatically increases the risk of skin cancer,” said Dr. Leslie Christenson, a dermatologist at the McFarland Clinic in Ames.

Christenson went on to say the pigment that is released and makes someone appear tan is a response from the person’s body caused by damage done to the DNA of skin cells.

“There’s no such thing as a good tan,” Christenson said.

In the short term, tanning provides someone the darker, caramel-colored skin that is prized by society. In the long run, tanning can lead to negative side effects such as premature aging. The UVA rays found in both sunlight and tanning beds can cause unwanted wrinkling, Christenson said.

Tanning has also been shown to increase the probability that someone can develop some form of skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2010, the United States spent $2.36 billion on the treatment of melanoma, one of the deadliest skin cancers. Dr. Christenson said $1.5 billion was spent treating non-melanoma skin cancers in 2004.

“90 percent or more of these diseases are caused by sun exposure,” Christenson said, explaining that this includes exposure from artificial tanning beds.

Never the less, the number of people who choose to tan is on the rise. As of late 2013, the state of Florida officially had more tanning salons than McDonald’s fast food restaurants, Christenson said. Part of the reason more people are choosing to tan may be due to skepticism about its dangers and also unanswered questions regarding the correlation between cancer rates and tanning.

“It’s not as dangerous as the medical community makes it out to be,” said Craig Bumgarner, owner of the Sizzlin’ Cabana, which has locations in both Campustown and west Ames.

“Tanning, in my opinion, done in moderation, is not bad for you,” Bumgarner said. Bumgarner, however, went on to recognize that tanning arrives with risks .

“I’m not here to tell you tanning is 100 percent safe,” Bumgarner said. “If you go to a tanning salon every day, you’re insane.”

The Sizzlin’ Cabana owner went on to stress that regardless of the inherent risks he cannot control, his establishment puts the safety of its clientele first.

“We check your skin type and err on the side of safety,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner explained that when a new client comes in to the Sizzlin’ Cabana, the staff checks the client’s skin type and also asks them how long it’s been since they last tanned. If the person hasn’t tanned before, or if it has been a while since they last tanned, the staff will have them enter the tanning bed for a shorter amount of time than they would allow someone who tans regularly, Bumgarner said.

The Sizzlin’ Cabana doesn’t just stop at skin safety either.

“We make people show us eyewear,” Bumgarner said, referring to protective eyewear used during tanning. This is due in part to the damage that tanning can cause to the human eye if not protected.

Bumgarner’s business also uses a computer system to prevent tanning abuse. The system prevents clientele who use the Sizzlin’ Cabana’s 15-minute tanning beds from tanning more than once within a 24-hour period. The system is more strict when it comes to the more powerful 12-minute tanning beds, allowing users to only tan once every 48 hours.

Even with the possible negative side effects of tanning, Bumgarner argues that the immediate benefits are valuable in and of themselves, citing both the physical euphoria of tanning and the vitamin D benefits.

Christenson argues that the vitamin D tanning provides isn’t a reason to tan.

“After 10 minutes in the sun, the body breaks down vitamin D,” Christenson said, adding that this number would be lower in a tanning bed because of the intensity of the light.

Benefits and risks aside, the state legislature may have a hand in decreasing the number of people allowed to use tanning facilities.

A bill passed the Iowa House subcommittee Tuesday that would raise the minimum age for tanning bed usage from 16 to 18 years. This could be a major bust for many salon owners whose clientele are primarily of high school and college age, such as Bumgarner, who estimates that 70 percent of his customers are college students.

Christenson argues that the bill would be a positive step in reducing cancer risks.

“The earlier you are exposed, the higher your risk for cancer,” Christenson said in regards to artificial tanning. She also went on to say that tanning can become addictive and that studies have seen correlations between the behaviors of habitual tanners and alcoholics.

The key word is habitual. Tanning, although not 100 percent safe, all comes down to personal responsibility, a sentiment shared by Clifton.

“Be proactive and be smart if [you] decide to go,” Clifton said, explaining that by being proactive she meant taking the necessary precautions such as wearing one’s eye protection.

There is no right or wrong answer on the tanning debate, only personal accountability and responsibility.